by Donald Charles Lotz
PCHS Newsletter, Nov. 1987)
The 150th anniversary of the formation of Passaic County is being observed this year (1987), but residents of the county recently forgot another anniversary. Seventy-eight years ago the infamous Jersey Devil, dubbed the “What-Is-It” or “Vampire” by the local press, visited Passaic County.
The first sighting of the Vampire occurred Sunday morning, January 24, 1909. Harry (Henry) Montrose, a resident of Spring Street, Paterson, was awakened by his mother at 5:30 in the morning and informed: “that someone was trying to get into the house.” Montrose ran to the nearest window and saw “a shadow disappear over the fence.” “It was a fleeting glance,” but Montrose saw that “it was a peculiar looking thing with long legs and a great (mammoth) wings.” Footprints of the What-is-it, discovered in the backyard, had a “resemblance to those prints of a pony with the exception that there were only two instead of four.” Reports further described the vampire as having the body of a kangaroo, the head of a horse, and the tail of a snake.
Later that day, the young men of the neighborhood formed a search party to locate the weird “thing.” They found the “What-is-it hiding in a box stall in John Fisher (Fisher’s) stable on Spring Street.” An attempt to capture the “bird” ended in defeat when the vampire “emitted a queer noise and flapping its wings flew out of the barn.” Residents claimed to have seen it in the vicinity of Haledon, but William Buschmann, the owner of High Mountain, said, “they don’t have such things in that progressive community.”
The Vampire began its second day with a series of yells and shrieks disturbing the residents of Stony Road at three o’clock in the morning. One resident “caught sight of the bird-beast, that can fly faster than the average hawk or run speedier than a deer” and called the police. Perched in a tree, the “so-called devil” made a hasty retreat through Sullivan’s woods towards a spot near the Riverlawn Sanatorium. The Paterson Police Department dispatched Sergeant Murner and Officers Peter Carroll and l. J. Dunn to comb the woods. The officers heard ‘the yells of the uncanny beast” and charged towards the location “from where the indescribable shrieks were emitting.” Paterson’s finest discovered a mechanical What-is-it; an old windmill whose turning in the wind caused the strange squeaking and squealing heard in the vicinity.
Poking fun at the Paterson Police Department, The Paterson Evening News report jokingly wrote, “This morning a quart bag of the best table salt was left at the station house with the following note attached: This salt is left for Sergeant Murner and his fellow Vampire hunters by Arther W. Bishop, who requests that the Sergeant sprinkle it on the tail of the devil-bat and by doing it will be easily captured.”
The demise of the What-is-it was reported in the January 27, 1909, issue of the Morning Call and in the Paterson Evening News of January 28, 1909. The Morning Call caption asserted “TRYING DAY FOR THE WHAT-IS-IT? – Shot a Dozen Times It Drops Into Falls Basin and Disappears Under Ice.” The Morning Call correspondent said the “peculiar horse-legged, kangaroo-bodied, dog-headed, winged object, known sometimes as the Jersey Devil was shot by a saloon keeper as it winged its way across the chasm bridge at the falls.” The Vampire plummeted into the “falls basin and disappeared under ice floes;” thus the saloonkeeper lost a prized possession and exhibit for his bar. The article concluded with a poem about the vampire by J. Boyd.
“The Vampire Is Dead, Fierce Jersey Devil is said to have finally met its end in Richfield,” affirmed the headlines of The Paterson Evening News for January 28, 1909. Elaborating further, The Paterson Evening News said, “Sam Van Winkle, Carl Jones, and Claus Winkle got wind that the Vampire was headed Richfield way” and “in short order a slaughter brigade was organized.” Soon after, Sam Van Winkle spotted the Vampire and ran to get his friends in the Richfield Hotel, where “They offered to treat the bird if it would fly into the barroom, but the bird was not taking any chances with Richfield Tavern liquor.” The bird was riddled with bullets while in mid-flight. Approaching the dead animal, “they found, as most sane persons had anticipated, that it was nothing more or less than a huge horned owl.” The Paterson Evening News promised that “the Vampire is no more, and the general public is warned that Vampire stories will be blue penciled from now on.”
Breaking their promise, The Paterson Evening News printed another Vampire story in their January 30, 1909, newspaper. The article states that “three tried and true citizens of the Bunker Hill section of Riverside,” in Paterson, discovered a “huge and monstrous object” in the Passaic River. Inspecting the monstrosity, the trio concluded, “they had landed the Jersey Devil or Vampire.” They summoned Dr. John J. Ritter to analyze the object and upon examination, the doctor “decided that it was sure enough Vampire.” The object was transferred to the home of Martin Curley and “christened Baker,” in honor of William Baker, the man who shot the Vampire two days earlier at the Passaic Falls. The Paterson Evening News published their January 30, 1909, article using the story about the death of the vampire, as reported in the January 27, 1909, issue of the Morning Call.
During its short life in Passaic County, the Jersey Devil or Vampire had been awarded a celebrity status by the Paterson newspapers. In death, however, the county lowered the Vampire’s status to that of a common animal because plans were made to “have the Vampire stuffed and presented to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.” Thus a short and amusing chapter in the history of Passaic County came to an end.
(“Vampire sketch courtesy of V. Musetti.)